THE SUREST WAY TO keep deer from disturbing your garden is to put up a fence. There are less expensive options, like repellents , but these are also less effective. This is why, sooner or later, so many gardeners end up constructing fences. These barriers come in many different styles, and which one you end up with will depend on the number of deer you’re trying to screen out, the size of your garden, and the amount of money you’re willing to spend.
Where only a few plants need protection, and where the protection does not need to be in place all year, something as simple as a covering of bird netting may work. The gardeners at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Worcester, Massachusetts, have found that deer won’t browse on blue holly plants that have been draped with the black plastic netting during the winter months, provided the netting has been pinned to the ground at the edges. Some people find that even bird netting laid horizontally on the ground provides protection, because the deer are reluctant to walk across it with their pointed hooves.
Individual cages of wire can be built to surround particular plants or particular plantings—a bed of tulips, for example. If the top is left open, the walls should be high enough that deer can’t simply lean over and feed, but these need not be jump proof. Although deer can easily clear a four-foot fence, they appear reluctant to do so when the area they are jumping into is too small to enable them to jump out again.
Sometimes only a portion of a plant needs protection. Deer rubbing their antlers against tree trunks during the autumn mating season can severely damage the bark. Any temporary wrapping—from tree tubes to wire mesh circling the trunk to a height of four feet—will provide some protection.
Both the materials and the small quantities used, make such temporary fences the most cost-effective option. But putting them up and taking them down in a timely fashion does require an annual expenditure of effort.
Once used primarily to contain livestock, electric fences are now being used in reverse—to keep animals out. Electric fences will shock people as well as animals, so it is important to label the fence where unsuspecting people might come into contact with it. But electric fences are not dangerous. Although they are high voltage, they are low amperage—meaning that the shocks, though painful, do no permanent harm. And the chargers that electrify the fences use negligible amounts of power.
Deer are excellent jumpers, but they will always prefer to go through a fence rather than over it. The key, therefore, is getting the deer to touch the fence so they receive an electric shock. If the fence is baited (see “The Best Bait,” page 58), and it looks open enough that the deer think they can get through, they will attempt to penetrate it and receive a memorable, corrective jolt. Once they’ve learned they can’t go through it, they will follow the fence line in search of an opening. So, it’s critical to enclose the driveway, even if deer have never entered your property this way in the past.
Keep the fence energized at all times; new animals join the herd regularly. During construction, energize the wires that have been installed at the end of every workday, because a deer’s first encounter with the fence is critically important.
The design of an electric fence will depend on the number of deer in your area. One of the simplest is a pair of electric wires, one 20 inches, the other 40 inches from the ground. Such a design should work where there is low to moderate deer pressure. David Kennard, of Wellscroft Fence Systems in Harrisville, New Hampshire, recommends using IntelliRope or IntelliTape, because these woven white and black ropes or tapes are more visible than thin wires. (Both also come in dark green, however, for the aesthetically sensitive gardener.) This kind of fence costs from 20 to 40 cents a foot for materials (including the cost of posts), can be installed quickly—up to a hundred feet of fence per hour—and will last for five to ten years before the ropes or tapes need to be replaced.
For larger areas or those experiencing heavy deer pressure, a third wire or tape at 60 inches from the ground will probably be necessary. Alternatively, you can place a second single-wire fence line three feet in front of the other. Such a barrier has width, height, and depth, which makes deer less likely to try and jump it. More often, the deer will walk up slowly, receive a shock, and go elsewhere, rather than just barrel through. “Most penetration,” says Kennard, “occurs when the deer go through the fence before they actually see it.” It helps to mark the fence’s location with a strip of bare or mulched soil, both to keep weeds from growing up around the wires and to create a visual boundary. As with any electric fence, regular baiting makes it more effective.
Electrified netting, such as DeerGard, is a more expensive but popular choice for home gardeners. At about 80 cents per foot, it comes in a 42-inch-wide roll of 150 feet, and is designed to be supported by posts every 12 feet. It has 9-by-12-inch openings—large enough to invite deer to go through, so they get the required shock. Its black color makes it unobtrusive in the landscape. Extremely easy to install, it can last up to 10 years. The hot wires on the lower portion of the fence provide the added benefit of deterring woodchucks, raccoons, and other small mammals.
At around a dollar per foot, a permanent high-tensile steel-wire fence is the most expensive electric fencing option, but a good choice where deer pressure is moderate to high. A six-foot vertical barrier with eight wires, it can last up to 20 years and won’t sag under heavy snow. You can also install a slanted version, which, while offering the added benefit of depth to deter the herd, is more expensive and takes up considerably more space. The economics of high-tensile fences make them most appropriate for large areas with long linear runs and few gates, since the same number of end posts and corners are required whether you are containing a large or small area.
At approximately a dollar per foot, plastic mesh, such as Tenex or Benner’s Deer Fencing, is a good nonelectric choice for areas with light to moderate deer pressure. Both come in 330-foot rolls with heights from four to seven and a half feet. The black mesh blends well with the landscape and can last 10 to 15 years, although, over time, it becomes fragile and is more likely to collapse under snow than wire fences. It’s most effective when installed with tension cables at the top and bottom for added support, and when staked to the ground at least every five feet to prevent deer from getting under it. This type of fence is very easy to install yourself. If you have existing trees, you can attach the fence to their trunks instead of putting in posts. Twelve-inch-long strips of white cloth should be attached to the fence every ten feet for the first three months, to ensure that deer see the fence.
The final choice of barrier is the most deerproof of them all: a permanent, eightfoot, fixed-knot woven wire fence. It’s also the most expensive, costing two dollars or more per linear foot. You can choose from a vertical or slanted design, the latter of which takes up more space but offers the added advantage of a 3-D deterrent. Either way, you can expect this formidable barrier to last up to 30 years.
When visitors admire the massive ninefoot woven-wire fence surrounding the Seed Savers Exchange collection of heirloom apples, Iowa orchardist Steve Demuth explains that “the really impressive thing about this fence is that it keeps deer out nearly all the time.” Which is to say that no fence is perfect.